VANCOUVER—The job is like being an executioner, says the voice on the other end of the phone. It’s just what he’s paid to do.
The man with a light English accent says he’s speaking from an India-based call centre where he and other scam artists work through the night, phoning Canadians and claiming to work for the Canada Revenue Agency. They tell people they owe tax money and will be arrested if they don’t pay. Some panicked victims send thousands of dollars.
“It’s like somebody in Texas. He’s an executioner; he has to execute people, he has to kill people. It’s his job. That’s what he’s doing, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s like that. I’m just doing a job right now.”
On Oct. 29, following news of raids against call centres in India, StarMetro received a call to a newsroom phone from someone claiming to be from the CRA. They said we had to contact them immediately to remedy a tax issue.
We called back to see if anyone would share their story. They did.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) reports that it has received about 74,000 complaints about the calls since 2014, with 4,000 victims reporting more than $15.2 million in losses to the scammers.
In late October, Canadian police announced that a joint effort with American and Indian police agencies had shut down three such call centres. Officers arrested several people and seized information related to about 600 Canadians who had fallen for the scam.
In the week following similar arrests in 2016, complaints to the CAFC about the scam dropped by 93 per cent — but they picked up again in the following months.
On Nov. 6, police told the Parliament Hill press gallery they will continue working to root out and shut down the call centres in India.
The man we spoke to gave a name and later provided a photo of an Indian ID, but StarMetro has chosen not to publish the name because of remaining concerns about its veracity. The man would not prove the ID was in his possession.
A LinkedIn page says a man with that name is employed by a company called Sonark Outsourcing Solutions. The company’s Facebook page says it is located in Phoenix, Ariz., but the page is full of photos labelled as being taken in Ludhiana, Punjab, India. The city is in the country’s north, near its border with Pakistan.
StarMetro could not find a phone number for Sonark Outsourcing Solutions. An email address for Sonark found on an Indian company listing site also appears online as the email for a number of different companies. StarMetro sent a message to the email address but did not receive a response.
In the Facebook photos, employees are seen eating cake, living it up celebrating birthdays and holidays. Videos promote parties being thrown by the company.
However, our caller said he works until 4 a.m., 21 days per month, at a “sh-thole of a job.”
He insists there’s no other option for him. The scam earns him $400 a month — $300 more than he’d make at a legitimate call centre, he said.
There’s inadequate medical coverage in India and life costs money, he said, arguing he must provide for his family. Those who fall for the scam and lose their savings are of no concern to him.
“Right now, they’re in a better situation than I am. They’re in a better country than I am,” he said. “Their government is not going to see them in the street, but my government will see me in the street.”
The man speaks with an English accent and said he was educated in the United Kingdom, though he never went to university there. Despite his background, he said, finding a job that pays enough to support his family hasn’t been easy.
After overstaying his visa, he said going back to the U.K. isn’t an option and that he’s tried many times to get a good job without success. Initially, he worked in legitimate call centres but he said they did not provide enough to live on.
“If I had a genuine job in a genuine call centre, I’d only get paid $100 a month,” he suggested. “I’d have to survive on $100 a month; could you do that?”
Later in the call he says he’d make $150 a month at such a call centre.
It’s the big money that keeps such scammers in operation, said Ryan Duquette, the founder of Hexigent, a cybersecurity firm based in the Greater Toronto Area.
The phone scams are not new, but callers are changing their tactics, Duquette said. In past years, the scams usually relied on greed and promised people fortunes for completing a task, like the now-infamous “Nigerian prince” scam. But scammers are finding that fear is a better motivator, he said, especially for those new to Canada.
“Here in Canada at least, the victims that I’ve seen, a lot of them are immigrants to the country who don’t know how our policing system works,” Duquette said. “They may come from countries where the police will come to your house over an unpaid debt and drag you out.”
Such scams have been running in one way or another for decades, he said. Because they make money and are inexpensive to carry out, they aren’t likely to end any time soon.
Duquette said scammers have existed “as long as people” but became more frequent as the internet became more popular.
The caller reached by StarMetro said the CRA scam is not his first breadwinner. He was doing the “Windows scam” more than five years ago, telling Canadians there was a problem with their computer and asking them to send money to fix it.
Though the elderly and immigrants tend to be the most common targets, according to Duquette, the scammer reached by StarMetro insisted he’s mainly taking money from Canadians in their 30s and 40s.
Older people watch television and see news reports, so they know not to fall for the scam, he said.
Despite the arrests made by Indian authorities earlier this month, the con artist says he isn’t concerned about police raiding the office where he works and throwing him in jail. The police only bust up operations in big cities, he said, so there’s nothing for him to worry about.
“Most call centres that get raided are like in Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad,” he said. “Places like that, you know? Proper call-centre locations.”
Back in Ottawa, authorities acknowledged the difficulties with rooting out centres as their operations change. Supt. Peter Payne, director of financial crime with the RCMP, said such call centres have been getting smaller, spread across more locations.
“There’s probably more call centres in place. All I can tell you right now is that we have a good collaboration with Indian authorities,” Payne said during the Nov. 6 press conference. “We’re not stopping at this point. We will do what we can to dismantle and disrupt this process to protect Canadians, and the government is serious about this.”
But the resolve of Canadian authorities doesn’t trouble the man on the other side of the world.
“Where we’re based, no one is ever going to guess that there is a call centre here,” he said.
Jeremy Nuttall is the lead investigative reporter for StarMetro Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports
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